The English language has taken a beating from several quarters recently and is being blamed for many of India’s woes. An article on Scroll.in said that one reason for the poor quality of Master of Business Administration graduates in India was the use of English to teach complex concepts. Another article on the website, from last year, states that a majority of children are being deprived of a real education because of the country’s obsession with English.
While English has frequently been panned under the save-our-culture paradigm, this new strain of criticism from purportedly liberal and rational quarters is worrying.
These arguments largely rest on three pillars – one, that children learn better in classrooms when they are taught in languages they speak at home; two, that elites take unfair advantage of their English skills by cornering good jobs and education opportunities and three, that there aren’t many teachers who know English well enough themselves to be able to teach it.
A language of emancipation
While it is true that it is easier for children to pick up a language at school if it is being spoken at home, it doesn't necessarily follow that because they haven't learnt English at home, they cannot pick it up in school.
English has been used as a language of emancipation in the Indian context for more than one-and-a-half centuries. Reformers and activists such as Savitribai Phule, BR Ambedkar and Kancha Ilaiah have all vociferously argued about the massive potential of English for the liberation of Dalits from caste-based oppression.
Many reformers have also argued that in India, where caste hierarchies are built into every native language, adopting an egalitarian language can serve as a tool for empowerment.
“I want to emphasis the fact that Indian languages – be it Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil or Malayalam – all of them carry the legacy of caste," Dalit activist Chandra Bhan Prasad had said in an interview in 2007. "But if you replace Hindi or Tamil with English you will greet by saying 'good morning.' The other person will respond saying 'good morning'. Both will look into the eyes and equality is established.”
This is particularly important because language influences our perception of the world – it affects thought and cognition – and if language is non-egalitarian at its core, there is an argument for leaving it behind, no matter what other problems may arise.
Commentators keep lamenting the fact that India has sent a mission to Mars but is unable and unwilling to conduct its administration in its regional languages. In the same vein, if India can launch rockets into space, can it not teach its population a language that deals a blow to its age old hierarchies?
One of the arguments raised by those in favour of a shift towards native languages is that English chauvinism is a real problem in India. As this article in Scroll.in says, the language has become the new tool for discrimination, creating a “linguistic caste system” where English-speaking elites are at the top of the ladder.
True, proficiency in English translates into vastly better employment opportunities in India – but this is more because of the larger global reality than an obsession that Indians have with the language.
“Even if 10% of our children got [an] English education, the intellectual field would have changed. This country would have changed," Iliah, in an interview to The Times of India in 2013, had said. "My hope is education, not reservation — and I emphasise, English education.”
Let us, for a minute, leave aside the problem that there is no other language that can unite India into a cohesive whole and assume instead that English should no longer be the dominant language of instruction or bureaucracy in India.
If so, are we to believe that the rich will not get an English-medium education for their children when it is clear that by learning the language, they stand to get jobs in multi-national companies or the option of seeking greener pastures in other countries?
The children of the rich are not really a part of the applicant pool for government jobs, so opening those up to other languages is not going to change the hegemony of the English in India’s job market.
To argue that the elites will stop educating their children in English due to moral compunctions would be wishful thinking. In the world order as it stands today, it is quite obvious that English is the language to learn to compete in the global marketplace. It’s not for nothing that the Chinese are pushing for English with a frenzy. This is also the language which the software industry worldwide predominantly functions in and Indians have asserted their superiority in these fields over other countries with quite a flair.
To teach in other languages in India’s public schools would achieve the exact opposite of what anti-English commentators are hoping for.
It would widen the rich-poor divide as the former would always have the option of learning English in expensive private schools and thus continue the same structures of exploitation. The answer, rather, seems to be to instruct in native languages as well as in English in all schools compulsorily.
The government will be unable to make English so unfavourable that the wealthy stop learning it. Hence, the responsibility of the government is, instead, to make English reach the poor so they can compete for the best jobs on the world stage. That the government is failing to do so is not a cogent argument to stop the effort completely.
Iliah, too, has argued for obliterating the gap in the standard of education in private English-medium schools and government schools with regard to infrastructure as well as teaching methods.
Anand Teltumbde, a professor, scholar and activist, has argued that the way to an egalitarian society is to give equal education to all. The problem that faces us, then, is not that of which language to use, but how to devise a system of pedagogy that enables everybody equal access to a quality education.
The case of the French teacher in Belgium
Finally, the only point on which the whole nation seems to agree is the chronic lack of quality teachers in the country. This video about teachers from a school in Bihar that went viral has become a one-piece argument to prove India cannot do English and must throw the oppressive yoke of colonialism to shine through in its native languages.
To me, the argument seems something like this: The teacher doesn’t know English, so she can't be expected to teach it. And if she can’t be expected to teach it, then students can’t learn it, so let’s just stop teaching English.
The rejoinder to this can be found in The Ignorant Schoolmaster by French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. The book’s premise is that a teacher can be ignorant but can still channel growth. To prove his point, he drew upon the work of Joseph Jacotot. A lecturer who was exiled from France after the revolution, Jacotot took residence in Belgium, where he became a professor of French at a local university.
Jacotot, though, didn’t know any Flemish and his students didn’t know French. So, Jacotot devised a method through which, by the end of the year, he had learnt Flemish, and the students, French.
Ranciere calls this the emancipatory method and says it is based on only one thing – the ability to pay attention. This method emancipates people from their dependence upon the upper classes who have a virtual monopoly on the education system.
Ranciere’s premise was this: that the lower classes needn’t be hindered because of limited access to instruction. They have the ability to learn as much or as well as anyone else. What needs to change is the current pedagogical system that relies on keeping them downtrodden for the benefit of the upper classes.
It is due to a lack of political will that we are unable to do so. And given our proclivity for easy solutions, we choose to blame a language for our problems and not an education system that it takes actual effort to change.
As any social reformer will tell us, instead of lamenting what we don’t have, we should focus on what we can do.
In favour of English
Reading some of these articles, one gets the impression that many who argue against the use of English are not acquainted with Dalit struggles.
Prasad, one of the few Dalit journalists who write in English, helped create a temple devoted to goddess English in a village called Banka in Uttar Pradesh. Not surprisingly, the temple was never allowed a proper existence by the upper castes of the village.
Criticising English without keeping in mind this tortured history of emancipation is not only highly irresponsible but also an act of derision.
Phule, the woman who built the first schools for girls in India, had written this poem – "Learn English" – in praise of the language and its potential for the emancipation of both lower-castes as well women. The poem goes:
Make self-reliance your occupation,
Exert yourself to gather the wealth of knowledge,
Without knowledge animals remained dumb,
Don’t rest! Strive to educate yourself.
The opportunity is here,
For the Shudras and Ati Shudras,
To learn English
To dispel all woes.
Throw away the authority
Of the Brahmin and his teachings,
Break the shackles of caste,
By learning English.